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Food Connections Spotlight: Shelagh Mullen

shelagh_mullenNo one embodies the phrase “Food Connections” quite like Shelagh Mullen. Not only is she an accomplished designer, she’s also a talented chef who’s blended her career and her love of food in all kinds of interesting ways. Read on to learn how Shelagh got her start, how she’s found success in food marketing, and how a one-of-a-kind culinary experience of hers had a twist ending.

Let’s start with the big one: Can you tell us about your recent culinary school experience in Ireland?

I’ll never forget the moment when I found out that going to cooking school (or cookery school, as they call it) in Ireland was an actual thing. That Ireland—a place I have such an innate connection to, like a bungee cord pulling on my heart—could be home for a short time, while doing what I love so much, cooking. I mean, come on, right?! That dream turned into a reality, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Cut short by Covid-19, but that’s water under the bridge and another story altogether. With the support of my wonderful husband and daughters, I set off on the experience of a lifetime. The twelve-week certificate course at The Dublin Cookery School was perfect for what I wanted to accomplish.

In the small, quiet, exclusive seaside town of Blackrock, Dublin, the school was situated in an old industrial area, now with lots of cool, re-furbished condos. I’d walk to (and from) school every day, uphill and into the wind (I’ve never experienced wind like the wind of January in Ireland). The welcome I received the first day of school, with 14 of my new Irish friends, was pure Irish hospitality. It was pissing (as they say) rain, and I was soaked through my every inch of clothing, but I knew the minute we sat down for our first meet and greet that I was in the right place.

The first day was like two full days to get on track. We started with a demo from our first tutor. We then proceeded into the kitchen with our daily partner to recreate the dishes that we had just learned. We sat down and ate the dish (Poached Pear, Walnut & Crozier Blue Cheese Salad, Pasta with Parma Ham and Pistachios, Apple Cake with Salted Caramel Sauce & Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream), then back to the demo kitchen for the next day’s tutorial (Lynda’s Brown Bread, Chicken Stock, Butternut Squash Soup with Lemongrass, Timbales of Provencale Vegetables with Goats Cheese). Repeat. Every day when we arrived, we paired up with our partner, divided and conquered the day before tutor demo, then got to work. Let me tell you, we ate like kings and queens. Good thing I had a two-plus mile walk to and from school every day!

I was robbed of the last four weeks of my time in Ireland (the school shut down 2 weeks early due to Covid), and my husband was coming after school to celebrate our 30th anniversary. Of course, that didn’t happen either. But I will be back, I will.

Have you always enjoyed cooking?

Growing up, I was an extremely picky eater. Not a vegetable crossed my lips until after college. I became obsessed with cooking shows on PBS and wanted to try making some of the recipes. So until my schooling in Ireland (and a short course at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute about 24 years ago), I’m self-taught. Lots of trial and error, and I still love to watch cooking shows on public television.

When did you realize you wanted to be a designer?

I’ve always loved art and I had a ‘Commercial Art’ class in high school, and absolutely loved it. I certainly didn’t know it was something I could do for a living. In college, I started in Early Childhood Education then switched to Interior Design. I took my first Graphic Design class, and the light bulb went off. Everything clicked into place from there.

Are there any creative similarities between cooking and design?

Absolutely. When I started in Graphic Design, we were still working with keylines, press-type, and rubber cement! The job was very hands-on. When design transitioned to the computer, I felt I’d lost the “hands on” and “get dirty” part of creativity. Cooking brings that back for me. Having my hands in bread dough or tossing around a bunch of veggies with olive oil—that feeds my soul.

When did food become a part of your design career?

I started making pancake mixes for family and friends. One day my brother said, “Shelagh, you should market these, they are amazing!” I have a bit of entrepreneurial spirit from a young age, so I took the challenge, and SheCooks was started. I had a line of whole-grain baking mixes and sold them at the Mill City Farmers Market. Then I migrated to some co-ops, gift shops, and small grocery stores in the region. But I realized all the sudden that I was a food producer, and the exciting part for me was the startup phase of being a food entrepreneur. So now I find great pleasure in working with new food makers, helping them grow. Plus, I have lots of mistakes I can share with them, so they can learn from me. A been there, done that sort of thing.

Where do you find your design inspiration?

My inspiration comes in very random ways. It could be the color of someone’s ski jacket that might inspire a color for some packaging, or a shape I see that would work for a background. I try and keep my eyes wide open when starting a project and see where things land.

What’s your “recipe for success” when it comes to good design?

I may work for a few days on some packaging ideas, but I know to leave it and come back after a few days. Things always look different after some time away.

Now let’s talk real recipes. What have you been cooking lately?

There’s nothing like a good sourdough starter story! Even before I left for my trip to Ireland, I was becoming obsessed with sourdough. I named my starter Sonny (named after my gifted starter from my client, Sunrise Flour Mill, of which had been alive for over 9 years). I even dehydrated Sonny and brought her with me. I reconstituted her so she could get some amazing Irish soul into her. Because I had to leave so abruptly due to Covid, I didn’t have time to dehydrate her for the trip back, so I took a chance and smuggled her back to the states—and renamed her O’Sonny. I feed her every week and try to bake (and share) a few loaves a week. I’m utterly obsessed with it. Sourdough is the most satisfying bread I make in my kitchen, and I make a lot of breads! If I’m not baking bread, I’m testing recipes for clients and my own website.

What’s been your go-to takeout meal?

I can honestly say, none, as much as we love to go out to eat! And because I love to cook so much, going out is more about the experience, a lovely glass of wine, quiet conversation, and no dishes.

How long have you been participating in Food Connections?

I’ve been coming to Food Connections for about two and a half years. One of my favorite networking groups. Great people, and I’ve made some great friendships all because of FC!

If someone wants to partner with you, how can they reach you?

I’m just a Zoom call away if anyone needs help with food packaging or recipe development. And I teach cooking classes (I start teaching at Cooks of Crocus Hill in October)! They can take a look at my websites SheCooks.Design and or MullenDesignWorks.com. They can also reach me at 651.271.6919.

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